Robert Ashley's TV operas
by Boris von Haken

The most comprehensive definition of music would define the metaphor "music" without any reference to sound, and could include nothing but the mere presence of people - those present, the musicians and the audience, would then constitute the actual musical material for the composer. Composing would no longer be the arranging of sounds, the anticipation of tones in the composer's head and the writing down as score, but rather the artistic work would then be the mere organisation of musical events. These are considerations that Robert Ashley propounded as a young composer when in conversation with John Cage, at the beginning of his artistic career. The focus on the mere event is both a consequence of and an objection to the artistic concept of John Cage, who loosened the traditional relation between composer and tones but did not leave it behind. Robert Ashley makes this step. The result is not unlimited artistic freedom, but rather an accumulation of new problems and relations that although present in every musical performance, have never been thoroughly explored. The understanding of these relations consequently becomes the starting point for his composing: audience, stage, interpreters, instruments, score and composer himself must all be understood as an arrangement, forming a constellation that, although defined by tradition, is not unchangeable. Robert Ashley's art arranges such constellations. The composer's activity is no longer the taking down of musical scores, but rather the conception of procedures for the generation and presentation of music. He is a composer of the second order.

His electronic musical theatre Public Opinion Depends upon the Demonstrators  (1961) is exemplary of this line of thought. In this scenic composition, defined as scenic only by Ashley, though, the relation between audience and music, auditorium and podium is inverted. This work is conceived as a tape composition with sounds that are pre-recorded and prearranged. The performance involves loud speakers placed among the audience with a sound director controlling the music from the stage. The music sounds only in reaction to the audience's behaviour, though, almost like a partition. Exactly 11 different activities of the audience relate to musical sounds that are triggered accordingly: leaving the auditorium, speaking or laughing, whispering, looking at a loudspeaker etc. All these actions generate specific sound events. Spontaneous actions are interpreted gradually through music and caught into determined structures. The audience,  at first without knowing and involuntarily,  become interpreters of the composition. Ashley's piece Fancy Free (1970), music theatre as well, also offers such a game of controlled and spontaneous generation of sound. It was dedicated to and written specifically to be performed by the composer Alvin Lucier, with whom Ashley had previously collaborated in the Sonic Arts Union for a number of years. It is also a piece about Alvin Lucier himself, taking its starting point in Lucier's speech impediment, his stutter. Extremely slowly, the speaker recites a text, "I am fancy free, under a starry sky, grey, greyer than a mother's cunt, and bitterer", recorded simultaneously by four tapes. Set to a specific scheme, the tape is triggered to rewind and replay the speaker's mistake whenever one is made. The various possible slips are each classed with one tape respectively. The piece ends only when the text has been spoken perfectly. For Ashley- as for Richard Wagner - opera as a genre is the vanishing point of all music. Since the early 60's, all his compositions rely on a fundamental music theatrical arrangement, including those works that do not carry this name. The aim of his composing is not big opera performed on stage, but rather a genre that he himself has decisively informed - if not altogether founded. Ashley calls his works Opera for Television, music that is composed exclusively for the medium of television. His works are media-specific compositions, impossible to perform on stage. Robert Ashley realised this concept for the first time in Music with Roots in the Aether (1976). This work is in no way an opera in the traditional sense, but rather a sequence of portraits of seven contemporary American composers and their music: David Behrmann, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Robert Ashley himself. Each of the composers is presented through an interview and the presentation of one of his compositions. The documentary quality seems to exclude the idea of opera. The musicians' interviews are staged only to a small extent, it is the setting of the conversation or random events in the background that give an aesthetic comment. The casual character of this form of presentation though is not illustrative but creates a mysterious distance. In Music with Roots in the Aether, Gordon Mumma is shown in an empty sports stadium, Terry Riley at sunrise, and the distance in the interview between Pauline Oliveros and Ashley is too big to allow for a proper conversation. Each of the seven composers is portrayed in their own world and with their own music. It is an opera that only deals with the people who represent it.

Perfect Lives (Private Parts), Robert Ashley's next opera, stands more recognisably in the genre tradition of music theatre due to its dramaturgic qualities. Made between 1977 and 1983, this television opera is of central importance in many respects; it may rightly be called Richard Ashley's key work. In accordance with the complex structure and the devices used, this opera can be approached from various perspectives. One obvious aspect is the depicted landscape of the American Midwest. In Perfect Lives, the landscape is a place of action as well as determining the image of the opera. Perfect Lives takes on the characteristics of expanse, monotony and repetition, like the endless fields that are shown over and over again. No action set in a landscape can be seen, Perfect Lives is rather a music-theatre that is like the landscape whose characteristics it adopts, and that can be perceived accordingly. The view of the Midwest is simultaneously both static and endless. Seen from a distance, there is no movement in this type of landscape, things merely exist, but do not change. These visual aspects that characterise the opera become dominant in parts, almost replacing the action. Perfect Lives proves to be a pictorial composition dealing with the fascination of the wide open landscape. Robert Ashley's opera has no finale, but is endless, without a plot in the sense of a depicted action. Text, music, setting and pictorial language are disconnected and shown in a seemingly random simultaneity. Initially, the speaker - the only 'singer' in this opera - is not part of the action. The performer on stage and the performer singing are separate. The actors remain mostly silent. The 'libretto' of the opera is Robert Ashley's monologue, a text like an uninhibited and uncontrolled soliloquy, whose flux is ordered only metrically and thus co-ordinated to the accompanying music. The true music of the opera though, is not the sparse synthesiser sounds, but the piano improvisation of the piano player 'Blue' Gene Tyranny, adding yet another layer to the composition. The piano player is pictorially separated from the action of the opera as well as from the speaker. Neither does his music serve, like in the traditional opera, to accompany the singing or to supply a background for the action; it rather forms an independent element of the entire composition. The sounds are not integrated and do not elucidate anything, but create distance and suggest another perspective. The piano player, the piano player's hands and the instrument are all actors in their own rights. This arrangement also redefines the role of the composer as author of the work. Robert Ashley is the author of the text of Perfect Lives, the speaker and the co-ordinator of the video production. He did not compose the music, but prescribed its basic structures. There are no ultimately composed harmonies or melodies in Perfect Lives, only the outlines of the music are composed. The execution is improvisation, and the opera becomes a collective undertaking.

There is no immediate connection between the heterogeneous elements and figures of the speaker (Robert Ashley), the piano player ('Blue' Gene Tyranny) and the actors (Jill Kroesen/ David van Thiegem). Only the pictorial language of the video camera provides a unifying framework, being homogeneous in each of the seven 'acts' of this opera and thus achieving a certain visual link between its various levels. In the first act, The Park (Privacy Rules), the camera pans continuously from right to left, underlining the width of the landscape and the expanse of the fields. The composition of the picture as well corresponds to this camerawork through a low horizon. In the second act, the camera zooms to the front, and fusing all the lines in the horizon. The depiction of The Bank (Victimless Crime) indicates the decisive importance of this scene for the whole opera: the camera pans relentlessly up to the sky. Forming a grille, the pictures take on the geometry of a bank. In the fourth act, the camera zooms back and the objects are structured vertically, or mirrored like the manual of the piano. In the last three acts, there is no concurrence between camera movement and picture composition anymore. In the fifth, the camera is static, but the picture is predominantly divided in two. The sixth act describes concentric circles. The last act The Backyard (T' be Continued) shows the protagonists of the opera Isolde at the end of the day, watching the sunset. The formally determined camerawork is now abandoned.

It is very difficult to clearly identify the action of Perfect Lives (Private Parts) because the pictorial and musical components of the opera are superimposed. In a sense, the piano playing and the monologue constitute the plot, but then there is also a 'story'. However, this cannot be easily comprehended or retold, either. The opera is a complex network of several overlapping narrations and the stories of various people. This 'story' is represented on two levels, divided between the speaker's text and the presented images. All in all, there are fourteen parts in Perfect Lives which are played by four actors. They are mere figures, sparsely characterised and therefore hardly distinguishable. The colours of the clothes and the movements that define the parts are therefore important. There are four people in the centre of Perfect Lives: Raoul de Noget (No-zhay), a singer, and his friend Buddy, 'The World's Greatest Piano Player', who come to a small, nameless town in the Midwest to perform in the Perfect Lives Lounge. They meet two locals, Isolde and her brother 'D'. Together they want to commit the 'perfect crime'. They steal money from the safe of a bank. After the bank director has noticed the robbery - a scene that is repeated several times - , they secretly return all the money. The crime is 'perfect', although it is not a crime in the true sense. Being a senseless action that leaves no visible trace, this crime is a metaphor. It is a metaphor for art.  

(Translation by Edgar Schmitz)